W. H. Auden famously said of M. F. K. Fisher, “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose.” Born in Michigan in 1908 and raised in Southern California, Fisher, who died in 1992, was more than a food writer; she pioneered the way we write and think about food. Perhaps her most beloved collection is The Gastronomical Me, published in 1943, in which she wrote, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Since we are deep into summer, what could be more ideal than reading Fisher’s essay about a family trip she took down the California coast as a girl of 10, when they shared a peach pie and cream that all of them would remember, forever. —Alex Belth
Now you can drive from Los Angeles to my Great-Aunt Maggie’s ranch on the other side of the mountain in a couple of hours or so, but the first time I went it took most of a day.
Now the roads are worthy of even the All-Year-Round Club’s boasts, but twenty-five years ago, in the September before people thought peace had come again, you could hardly call them roads at all. Down near the city they were oiled, all right, but as you went farther into the hills toward the wild desert around Palmdale, they turned into rough dirt. Finally there were two wheel-marks skittering every which way through the Joshua trees.
It was very exciting: the first time my little round brown sister Anne and I had ever been away from home. Father drove us up from home with Mother in the Ford, so that she could help some cousins can fruit.
We carried beer for the parents (it exploded in the heat), and water for the car and Anne and me. We had four blowouts, but that was lucky, Father said as he patched the tires philosophically in the hot sun; he’d expected twice as many on such a long hard trip.
The ranch was wonderful, with wartime crews of old men and loud-voiced boys picking the peaches and early pears all day, and singing and rowing at night in the bunkhouses. We couldn’t go near them or near the pen in the middle of a green alfalfa field where a new prize bull, black as thunder, pawed at the pale sand.
We spent most of our time in a stream under the cottonwoods, or with Old Mary the cook, watching her make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees. She slapped it into pats, and then put them down in the stream where it ran hurriedly through the darkness of the butter-house.
She put stone jars of cream there, too, and wire baskets of eggs and lettuces, and when she drew them up, like netted fish, she would shake the cold water onto us and laugh almost as much as we did.
We spent most of our time in a stream under the cottonwoods, or with Old Mary the cook, watching her make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees.
Then Father had to go back to work. It was decided that Mother would stay at the ranch and help put up more fruit, and Anne and I would go home with him. That was as exciting as leaving had been, to be alone with Father for the first time.
He says now that he was scared daft at the thought of it, even though our grandmother was at home as always to watch over us. He says he actually shook as he drove us away from the ranch, with us like two suddenly strange small monsters on the hot seat beside him.
Probably he made small talk. I don’t remember. And he didn’t drink any beer, sensing that it would be improper before two unchaperoned young ladies.
We were out of the desert and into deep winding canyons before the sun went down. The road was a little smoother, following stream beds under the live oaks that grow in all the gentle creases of the dry tawny hills of that part of California. We came to a shack where there was water for sale, and a table under the dark wide trees.
Father told me to take Anne down the dry stream-bed a little way. That made me feel delightfully grown-up. When we came back we held our hands under the water faucet and dried them on our panties, which Mother would never have let us do.
Then we sat on a rough bench at the table, the three of us in the deep green twilight, and had one of the nicest suppers I have ever eaten.
The strange thing about it is that all three of us have told other people the same thing, without ever talking of it among ourselves until lately. Father says that all his nervousness went away, and he saw us for the first time as two little brown humans who were fun. Anne and I both felt a subtle excitement at being alone for the first time with the only man in the world we loved.
(We loved Mother too, completely, but were finding out, as Father was too, that it is good for parents and for children to be alone and then with one another … the man alone or the woman, to sound new notes in the mysterious music of parenthood and childhood.)
That night I not only saw my Father for the first time as a person. I saw the golden hills and the live oaks as clearly as I have ever seen them since; and I saw the dimples in my little sister’s fat hands in a way that still moves me because of that first time; and I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity.
I forgot what we ate, except for the end of the meal. It was a big round peach pie, still warm from Old Mary’s oven and the ride of the desert. It was deep, with lots of juice, and bursting with ripe peaches picked that noon. Royal Albertas, Father said they were. The crust was the most perfect I have ever tasted, except perhaps once upstairs at Simpson’s in London, a hot plum tart.
And there was a quart Mason Jar, the old-fashioned bluish kind like Mexican glass, full of cream. It was still cold, probably because we all knew the stream it had lain in, Old Mary’s stream.
It was a big round peach pie, still warm from Old Mary’s oven and the ride of the desert. It was deep, with lots of juice, and bursting with ripe peaches picked that noon.
Father cut the pie in three pieces and put them on white soup plates in front of us, and then spooned out the thick cream. We ate with spoons too, blissful after the forks we were learning to use with Mother.
And we ate the whole pie, and all the cream … we can’t remember if we gave away any to the shadowy old man who sold water … and then drove on sleepily toward Los Angeles, and none of us said anything about it for many years, but it was one of the best meals we ever ate.
Perhaps that is because it was the first conscious one, for me at least; but the fact that we remember it with such queer clarity must mean that it had other reasons for being important. I suppose that happens at least once to every human. I hope so.
Now the hills are cut through with superhighways, and I can’t say whether we sat that night in Mint Canyon or Bouqet, and the three of us are in some ways even more than twenty-five years older than we were then. And still the warm round peach pie and the cool yellow cream we ate together that August live in our heart’s palates, succulent, secret, delicious.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was an American food writer. She died in 1992